In 1944, the US knew what awaited them when facing the Japanese forces as they got closer and closer to the homeland of Japan. The prospects of a Japanese surrender were practically non-existent and the ferocity and bloodshed for tiny specks of islands as the Allies hopped from chain to island chain were much higher than envisioned.
As they prepared to bring the war to the Japanese homeland, the bombing campaign from China was not sustainable. The B-29 bombers had too long of a flight and all of the supplies and equipment to sustain the Super Fortresses had to be flown over the Himalaya Mountains.
However once the US began to edge closer in the Pacific, their calls were answered. After taking the Mariana Islands, the US built bomber bases on the islands of Tinian and Guam. There, the B-29s had a flight of only 1500 miles to Japan, easily within their range. However, they’d be without fighter escort until they could get closer.
General Curtis LeMay’s plan of strategic bombing was to attack any Japanese city where war materials for the Empire of Japan were being produced. Now that they had bases close enough, he could bring the war to the Japanese Empire on their own home front.
He started with a reconnaissance mission. The B-29 “Tokyo Rose” piloted by Capt. Ralph D. Steakley, who grabbed over 700 photographs of potential bombing targets in just 35 minutes.
Now LeMay was ready to carry out his bombing campaign. It began with the heavy bombing of the Japanese troops on Iwo Jima. The US would be invading there in just a few short months. The bombing would keep them from reinforcing the troops and weaken their defenses.
The Japanese homeland hadn’t been bombed since the Doolittle Raid. And that was more of a morale boost for the American people than a true strategic raid. The actual damage done was very slight to the Japanese war machine, but it did shock the population from believing that they were inviolate.
LeMay planned to change that in a big way. On the 24th of November, 111 B-29s took off for Tokyo. They were under the command of Gen. Emmett O’Donnell. The raid came in at 30,000 feet. There the Super Fortresses were much safer from Japanese anti-aircraft fire. The target was the Nakajima Aircraft Factory. But a combination of bad weather and high winds scattered the bomb drops, something that would hamper the bombing effort for the next few months. Only 24 bombs hit their targets and they didn’t do a significant amount of damage to the factory.
But the Japanese people were put on notice. This wasn’t the pin-prick of the Doolittle Raid that was essentially a one-way trip. This was a massive effort using the biggest and most sophisticated bomber the world had ever seen. And in tremendous numbers.
Due to the jet stream at high altitude, LeMay switched up his tactics in early 1945. He decided that he wanted to change from standard high explosive bombs to incendiary bombs to target much of Japan’s infrastructure which was made of wood and paper.
The incendiary weapons were called M-69s. Weighing about six pounds each, they were dropped in a cluster of thirty-eight within every single container. Each B-29 typically carried about 37 containers, which means that every plane carried around 1,400 of these tiny bomblets
Once the bombs were away from the plane, a time fuse released them from their containers. That typically happened around 5,000 feet. When the bombs hit the ground, they exploded. After they exploded, they released a type of highly flammable compound.A few of the bombers carried the M-47 incendiary bombs. The M-47 was a 100-pound jellied-gasoline and white phosphorus bomb which ignited upon impact.
On March 10, 1945, the US carried out the first of the terrible and terrifying fire-bombing raids over Tokyo with 300 aircraft. That would equal nearly 11,100 of the containers and an astounding 520,000 of the tiny flammable bomblets.
The B-29s came in much lower than normal, about 7000 feet and dropped their bombs with much more precision than the normal 30,000 feet altitude where high winds in the jet stream scattered their bombs and made them highly inaccurate. The devastation was horrific. Over 17 square miles of Tokyo were incinerated, and everything in its path destroyed, which was nearly 25 percent of the city. Not only factories and military targets but neighborhoods and civilians as well. Over 100,000 died in the bombing and another 100,000 were injured. Almost a million people were left homeless. The turbulence from the fires burning below was so bad, that it tore the wings off of one B-29. The firestorm and the resultant updraft actually launched parts of homes, like doors and windows up to the 7000-foot altitude as the planes passed by.
An eyewitness, Fusako Sasaki, on the WWII documentary “Battle Front” described the carnage: Stacked-up corpses were being hauled away on lorries. Everywhere there was the stench of the dead and of smoke. I saw the places on the pavement where people had been roasted to death. At last, I comprehended first-hand what an air-raid meant. I turned back, sick and scared. Later I learned that 40% of Tokyo was burned that night, that there had been 100,000 casualties and 375,000 left homeless.
A month after the March raid, while I was on a visit to Honjo on a particularly beautiful cherry-blossom day, I saw bloated and charred corpses surfacing in the Sumida River. I felt nauseated and even more scared than before.
We ourselves were burned out in the fire raid of May 25th, 1945. As I ran I kept my eyes on the sky. It was like a fireworks display as the incendiaries exploded. People were aflame, rolling and writhing in agony, screaming piteously for help, but beyond all mortal assistance.
After the firebombing of the Japanese cities thru the spring and summer of 1945, the US dropped the first atomic device off of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August of 1945. And the Japanese finally capitulated and surrendered to the Allies.
Photos: US Army